Mammy figure no laughing matter

November 10, 1998|By Mary C. Curtis

I DIDN'T know whether to laugh or cry. The day was Halloween. The place was the grocery store. The mood was supposed to be fun. Most employees were dressed for the occasion. One was a clown, another a mad scientist. But the first person customers saw as they walked in could only be one thing.

The cashier was in full regalia, the antebellum "Mammy" of all mammies, with head rag, blackface (that extended to the arms and hands) and the largest behind you have ever seen. I'm not sure how many pillows she had stuffed back there, but the effect was altogether grotesque.

I couldn't believe it. I walked over to her and said, "Do you know how offensive your costume is?" The blank stare on her face gave me the answer.

No excuses

But in this case, ignorance was no excuse. She was obviously smart enough to put the costume together, smear black on her body and present herself (and her behind) to the public.

I was flabbergasted, and asked to speak to the owner. When he approached, I tried to explain that while I was only speaking for myself, I thought the costume an offensive and inappropriate stereotype. The owner nodded and said the store did not mean to offend. I saw another customer shaking her head, I believe in agreement with me, and heard another woman defend my right to an opinion to the young woman in the costume, who seemed upset by all the attention.

I think that the casual nature of it all bothered me the most. What would a child shopping with mom or dad make of this costume? And how would someone answer the question, "What is she supposed to be?"

A myth of the South

Well, I have an answer: The woman in blackface isn't real, and never really was. She's a figment of an imagined Southern past, the past with happy slaves and black women content to nurse white babies and say, "There, there Miz Scarlett" at the appropriate time.

Many real black women of the time were raped and beaten, their husbands and children sold away. They survived as best they could. They bore little resemblance to the smiling "Mammy" behind the checkout counter, a distortion that ridicules black women. That's the way the history of slavery has often been presented in this country, from a safe distance, with all the rough edges smoothed out.

And the fact that in 1998, a store feels comfortable putting such an image on display means we haven't come as far as many people say we have.

By the way, by the time my husband went to the store on his lunch break, the young woman had washed her hands and face and removed her big behind. He said she was standing there in a head rag and you really couldn't tell what she was supposed to be.

Better nothing than a lie.

Mary C. Curtis is features editor at the Charlotte (N.C.) Observer. Her e-mail address:

Pub Date: 11/10/98

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